Early afternoons were pretty quiet at the Lyric Springs Country Inn. The previous night’s guests usually left in the morning, headed for home or into Nashville about 20 miles away. The next guests would not arrive until evening.
This gave the innkeeper – a tall, waifish 24-year-old redhead from Los Angeles – all day to make the beds, dust the oil lamps and horsehair chairs, and tend to Jubal, her boss’s 200-pound English Mastiff. That’s one reason she liked this job. With only Jubal to keep her company, the innkeeper could spend all day composing songs aloud as she mopped the floors and pruned the peony bushes.
One morning, on her 40-minute commute from Nashville, the innkeeper was listening to a cassette tape of the Stanley Brothers. She decided to write a song the Stanleys might enjoy singing in their high lonesome voices. She reached over, switched off the cassette deck, and began to sing.
“I am an orphan, on God’s highway / But I’ll share my troubles if you go my way.”
The innkeeper continued to work on the song throughout the day, her voice ringing off the wood-paneled walls of Lyric Springs’ barroom and the porcelain of its toilets.
“I have had friendships pure and golden / But the ties of kinship, I have not known them.”
The song was finished by the time she got back in her car and headed home. What started as an idea a few hours earlier now had four verses and two choruses.
“I have no mother, no father / No sister, no brother / I am an orphan girl.”
When she got home, the innkeeper grabbed a guitar and her duet partner, an equally skinny guitar picker she’d met while attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. She played him the new song, but he didn’t say anything. “I thought, ‘Oh well, he doesn’t like it.’ But he says he didn’t say anything because he thought it was perfect, so what was there to say?” she recalls.
It wouldn’t be long before many people shared the guitar picker’s opinion. This song, “Orphan Girl,” would open lots of doors. It would launch a career that would make the innkeeper one of the most beloved figures in a new music genre called “Americana.” And it would take her away from scrubbing other people’s’ toilets forever.
Gillian Welch arrived in Nashville in the summer of 1992, after two years at Berklee studying under songwriting guru Pat Pattison. Welch had been writing songs since childhood. Her adoptive parents, writers for the Carol Burnett Show, sent her to a “progressive independent” elementary school where students had daily folk song sing-alongs. At home, she filled notebooks with her own songs, although she never performed them publicly. Pattison showed Welch how to approach songwriting in an analytical, craftsman-like way, teaching her to use rhyme, rhythm, repetition and word choice to build a world inside a song.
Pattison also introduced Welch to Music City. He organized annual spring break trips to Nashville, where students could meet agents, managers, established songwriters and other music industry types. Welch was so smitten she left Berklee before completing her degree. “I decided nobody cares about a diploma in music,” she says.
Several other Berklee students moved to Nashville that summer, too, forming a mutual admiration society that got together for picking parties, guitar pulls and occasional gigs at clubs around town. David Rawlings moved from New England about six weeks after Welch arrived in town. Unlike Welch, he was a relative latecomer to music – he didn’t start playing until he was 16, when a friend suggested he ask for a guitar for Christmas so they could perform at their Rhode Island high school’s talent show.
By the time he moved to Nashville, Rawlings was enamored with brother duets like the Stanley Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, the Monroe Brothers and the Delmore Brothers. Welch liked that music, too, so one day they pulled together some chairs in Rawlings’ kitchen and sang “Long Black Veil.” “That was the first time we’d sat down and listened to our vocal blend. It wasn’t anything great, but we had some blend,” Rawlings says.
They began going to writers’ nights and open mic nights together, where they’d sit for hours just to play two songs. While Rawlings had played in tons of bands, Welch had almost no stage experience. “I really encouraged her, you have to play out every opportunity you can,” he says.
These early gigs did not provide much in the way of money or recognition, but they were instructive. While other struggling songwriters tried to write songs to fit Nashville’s sound of the day, Welch saw her songs going a different direction. “I wanted a song you couldn’t tell which year it was from. Those were the songs I loved.”
To write those kinds of songs, Welch would often pick an artist she admired and write a song for them, like she did with the Stanley Brothers and “Orphan Girl.” She had Townes Van Zandt in mind as she wrote “Barroom Girls,” a tune that could serve as a prequel to his own “Loretta.” She wrote “Tear My Stillhouse Down” after hearing Peter Rowan perform Bill Monroe’s “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine” at the Station Inn.
As Welch expanded their set list with more and more original material, she and Rawlings sought gigs outside the usual songwriter clubs. One of the first times Denise Stiff remembers seeing the duo perform was at the Mall at Green Hills, an upscale shopping center in Nashville’s suburbs.
Stiff was managing bluegrass chanteuse Alison Krauss at the time and had learned of Welch through Pattison. She liked what she heard and soon signed on as Welch’s manager. One of Stiff’s first goals was to find Welch a publishing deal. “It was a way for her to be able to stop working, so she’d have an income and focus on her music,” she says. She knew just who to call.
In the spring of 1994, Gillian Welch showed up, guitar in hand, to a white two-story stucco house near Nashville’s Music Row. This was 1904 Adelicia Street, home of Almo Irving Music, a publishing company owned by Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert. Stiff had sent her there to meet with David Conrad.
Conrad had a reputation around town as a “song man” – someone who could appreciate music for its artistic merit and not just its commercial viability. Stiff also knew he had a special affinity for women singer-songwriters, having worked with Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Nanci Griffith. “As soon as I heard Gillian’s stuff, I thought ‘David is the guy that’s going to get this,'” Stiff says.
Now Welch was at his doorstep. “She was skinny as six o’clock and dressed very plainly,” Conrad remembers. “That was her style. Thrift store stuff.” After some small talk, Conrad got straight to business. “I said, ‘Well, let’s not waste time. Play me something.'”
It was rare even in the early 1990s for an artist to perform in a publisher’s office. Most had cassette tapes, DATs or CDs to show around. Welch did not. She uncased her guitar, perched on the edge of a green leather chair, and began to sing “Orphan Girl.”
Conrad says he was instantly smitten. “You’re not ready for anything that powerful coming from someone who’s just hit town. You just don’t hear people with that kind of gift.” Still, he kept his cool. He asked Welch about her next gig. It was at the Bluebird Cafe, Welch and Rawlings’ first full set at the legendary songwriters club.
Welch remembers the night as a “feeding frenzy” – Conrad was one of a half-dozen publishers in the audience that night hoping to sign Welch. There’s no dressing room at the Bluebird, so after her 45-minute show, Welch avoided the scrum waiting offstage by ducking down a hallway near the kitchen, past the bathroom and cigarette machine, where she’d stashed her guitar case. When she’d packed the guitar away, Welch turned around to see Conrad blocking her way back into the barroom. “He kind of pushed me back by the cigarette machine and offered me a deal before anybody else could get to me,” she says. “And I said, ‘yes.'”
Other publishers were offering more money, but that didn’t matter. She knew Conrad understood her music in a way the others didn’t. “I’ve never regretted it for a single second. I knew right then, he was the man.”
Welch scored some respectable cuts at Almo. Brother-sister bluegrass duo Tim and Mollie O’Brien recorded both “Orphan Girl” and “Wichita” on their 1994 album Away Out on the Mountain. In 1995, the Nashville Bluegrass Band recorded “One More Dollar” and “Tear My Stillhouse Down” for their LP Unleashed, which won the 1996 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. Welch also had a song on that year’s Best Contemporary Folk Album: Emmylou Harris included “Orphan Girl” on her seminal Wrecking Ball.
As the buzz around her songs increased, Welch soon landed her own recording contract. Itching to get back into the record business, Alpert and Moss founded Almo Records in 1994 and began looking for artists to pad its roster. Moss envisioned selling Welch as a mainstream country artist. Conrad, who was already shopping his songwriter around to other labels, insisted that approach wouldn’t work. “I said, ‘This isn’t going to be Trisha Yearwood or Faith Hill,'” Conrad recalls. “He sort of shrugged and said, ‘Really. We’re signing her anyway.'”
The first time T Bone Burnett met Welch and Rawlings, after a gig at the Station Inn, he cut right to the chase. “I think he might have said, ‘Do you wanna make a record? Let’s make a record,'” Welch says.
It was an easy sell. Burnett had produced for Elvis Costello, Roy Orbison, Los Lobos, Counting Crows and a long list of others. Welch and Rawlings believed he understood the kind of album they wanted to make, and Burnett felt the same way. “We all have sort of a sideways streak. There was a lot of freedom in the idea of what it would mean to make a record,” Burnett says. “She and David had such a magical thing. They shared a dream and sang right inside it. It was intimate and beautiful.”
Welch and Rawlings spent thei